Friday, August 31, 2007

I - The lure of Vicksburg's treasures

The hills, streams, and homes of Vicksburg and Warren County are filled with treasure! Not the type you find diving on old Spanish galleons, or dug from a sandy island beach where Blackbeard buried his hoards. No, Vicksburg’s treasures are within the walls of its residences, or lie on a table at a local thrift shop, rest in the hands of an auctioneer, were lost by a schoolboy or buried years before by an old gentleman who didn’t trust banks, or were lost, discarded or fired by the soldiers of several different wars who fought or camped all around our city and our county. For nearly forty years I’ve searched Vicksburg and Warren County for the treasures that abound here in such diversity. It’s been a fascinating hobby that has brought me a great deal of enjoyment, so much so that I feel I should share my experiences with my friends and neighbors – you.
Many of my treasure-hunting years were spent searching the hills around Vicksburg (and other parts of Mississippi) for coins and relics of the War Between the States; my primary experience, therefore, is with a metal detector. But yard sales, flea markets, auctions and estate sales, pawnshops, and plain, ordinary people have all been great sources of treasure. In my quests for Vicksburg’s treasure I’ve dived in our rivers, dug a million holes in our hills (I covered each one), seined our innumerable streams, traded with hundreds of local residents, and bought from hundreds of others by placing wanted ads in our newspapers. I’ve bought from eBay or from local auctions, and walked miles and miles to eyeball the treasures found in the freshly plowed fields all over our county.
I have discovered that the hobby is so enjoyable that treasure hunting can gradually rule your life. “It’s a Disease!” That’s the title of a short piece I wrote for North South Trader’s Civil War magazine many years ago, back when I was Plant Manager at the Baxter Wilson power plant. The story is true, though I’ve fiddled a bit with names and places to avoid revealing certain details. I think it’s fit to share it with you:

It’s A Disease!

“Plant Manager! Line 1!” I heard myself being paged on the plant PA system. The Shift Supervisor sounded excited. I picked up the nearest handset, the one on Sarah’s desk, and answered.
“Dispatcher just called! Said they lost another unit in Arkansas!” the voice screeched. “Said for us not to touch a thing! If we lose our units, half the people in Mississippi will be without electricity. And a bunch in Louisiana and Arkansas!”
“Low water?” I asked. “Did low water cause them to lose the unit?”
“Yeah, they lost cooling water. Gage is under a foot now. This is the lowest the Mississippi has been in years.”
“Well, keep everybody alert. Call me if there’s any problem,” I said. “Day or night. Keep those units humming.”
Quite satisfying, I thought, though rather nerve wracking at the moment, to know we were so badly needed. These Vicksburg units were the largest in the entire state; they supplied electricity for many of the people who lived in Mississippi, and for a huge number of folks in other states as well.
“There’s one thing,” the Shift Supervisor continued, “We had two Operators call in sick. We can’t find the off men, so we’re short handed. We’re okay for now, though, just hope nobody else calls in sick.”
“What?” I replied. “Don’t they know how critical things are right now?”
“Keep trying to find them.”
Sarah the Secretary had come in by now, and was answering telephones and making coffee and rushing around as usual. “Chief,” she called from the break room as I headed toward my office, “Tommy called in, wanted a day’s vacation. I told him you wouldn’t mind.”
“What?” I growled, turning, “Things are critical. Half the people in Mississippi…”
“He wanted off sooo… bad, I just couldn’t tell him you wouldn’t let him…”
“Aw, all right,” I answered.
I settled down for a well-deserved cup of coffee. I had only been in my office a few seconds when the Mechanical Supervisor burst in. “Chief, I need to be off for a while. You don’t mind, do you?” he asked breathlessly.
“Joe, you know the situation,” I said patiently. “Half the people in Mississippi…”
“It’s an emergency, Chief!”
“Well,” I relented, “if it’s an emergency… Just stay in touch.”
“By the way, Chief, do you have any double A batteries? Save me a stop if you do.”
“Sure,” I answered. “In the car. I always keep an extra set in the glove box for my metal detector. But what…”
“Thanks, Chief.”
And he was gone. Strange behavior, I thought, for such a reliable supervisor.
AA batteries? Suspicion began about then.
I took care of several phone calls, including one to my boss in Jackson to assure him that the station was in tip-top shape and could be relied upon to keep the juice flowing to all those homes and businesses throughout the mid-south area. Like all good bosses, he complimented the performance of my crew and its leader, and assured me that heads would roll if anything went wrong. What a guy!
“Sarah,” I said into the intercom after a while, “tell Ralph I need to see him. We need to discuss what we’ll do if the river drops much lower.”
“He’s not here, Chief,” she answered.
“What? What the devil is going on around here? Where is the Lead Mechanical Engineer?”
“He said if you were looking for him to tell you he had to go check on the river, north of town.”
“On the river? What’s he doing on the river north of town?”
“I’m not supposed to tell you that.”
“What?” I screamed.
“Maybe I will… He’s up there picking up cannon balls.”
“Cannon balls…,” I said softly. My mind worked furiously. “Do you know where, exactly, Sarah?”
“I’m not supposed to tell you, unless it’s an emergency.”
“Well, it’s gonna be an emergency, real shortly!”
“Okay, okay. It’s a place called Haines Bluff. Do you know where it is?”
Haines Bluff. Everybody knew where Haines Bluff was. That was a Confederate fortification and camp north of town. Our Southern boys abandoned it after the Battle of Champion Hill. They moved into Vicksburg. They and the invading Yankees dumped the fort’s munitions into the river. They dumped the…
“Sarah!” I screamed as I rushed from my office and headed to the front door. “If anybody calls, tell them I went to check on a leaking valve in the tank farm.”
“But Chief,” she said, “You can’t leave. Half the people in Mississippi…”
“It wouldn’t hurt them to do without power for a little while,” I yelled as the door slammed behind me.
The nerve of those guys! I thought as I steered my car north. I trained half of them on how to use a metal detector. Heck, I got most of them started in the treasure-hunting business! Now this! I just hope there are enough of the crew left at the plant to keep it running…
The woods were full of cars, all of them familiar. I parked among them and jumped out. That was when I remembered I had on my new Florsheim shoes and my best pin-stripe suit. Oh, well… the stores were full of clothes. I tore off my tie and coat and jerked my detector from the trunk, then followed the path that led down to the water, the river, to the wealth of relics that must lie there now, exposed, waiting…
They were ending things up. Groups of them. Operators. Engineers. Mechanics. Warehouse personnel. Joe and my AA batteries. They had piles of cannon balls and artillery projectiles and all sorts of rusty and interesting objects that were valuable. There were holes everywhere in the now-bared river banks, holes with shapes like round balls, and Read shells, and Schenkl shells, and Brookes, and even Confederate buckles. My crew was winding up the hill, half the plant employees, I thought, like a busy trail of ants, laden with object d’art, back toward their cars. They didn’t speak. They had more important things on their minds.
I rushed to the water’s edge, thinking that perhaps it had dropped a little more in the last few minutes, that I might at least pick up a Minie ball. My detector hummed that soft little buzz as I searched, the buzz that tells you there’s nothing there. I got a signal. Square nail.
They were gone now, and I was left alone, standing in my muddy Florsheims, detector drooping to the ground. I wondered what the river level would do tomorrow. I wondered about half the people in Mississippi, and the huge number in Louisiana and Arkansas.
I trudged sadly into my office after the drive back, leaving muddy footprints along the way. The power was still on. Some of the employees had returned to work. I marveled at the force that had taken hold of them, a force that had compelled half the people at the plant to drive north.
It’s a disease! I thought then. A fatal disease for which there’s no cure. And most of the people in Vicksburg have it.
“Hi, Chief.” It was Ralph, my trusty Lead Mechanical Engineer, at my door. “Get anything?”
“No, Ralph,” I answered, “But you’re fired.”
“But Chief! I couldn’t help myself!”
“I know, Ralph. It’s a disease. You can stay.”
“I got a six-point-four Brooke shell. Strange fuse. Confederate. Must be rare.”
“I’m gonna kill you, Ralph.”
“No, Chief. Remember. It’s a disease.” He left hurriedly.
I settled back into my chair and pondered vengeance. But had I any reason to feel vengeful? It struck me that we all, from Operator to Engineer to Plant Manager, had considered the opportunity to dig a few cannon balls reason enough to neglect our duties and perhaps place all those people in Mississippi and Louisiana in jeopardy…
It’s a disease! I realized once more with a shudder. A disease!

Need more proof? Well…
Several years ago, after researching much of Vicksburg’s War history, I became convinced that the Yankees had camped on a certain hillside within the city. I found that two large churches had been built atop the suspect plateau, but that there was plenty of open ground down the hillsides around them. I proceeded to call the pastor of one of the churches; he subsequently gave me permission to hunt the grounds – as long as I didn’t leave any holes.
The next opportune day I loaded shovel and detector, drove to the church, and began hunting. Within a few minutes I located bullets and buttons – enough to confirm the presence of the invaders.
I was having a great time when a gentleman approached me and asked what I was doing. I told him, and added that I had gotten permission to do so. No, he told me, I hadn’t, because he was the pastor of the church, and he had done no such thing. It dawned on me then – I was hunting the grounds of the wrong church!
The pastor wasn’t too upset when I explained. After telling him who I was and the reason for my presence, I was allowed to go on with the hunt. The pastor hung around and watched as I pulled relics from the ground, often expressing his wonder and excitement. I explained to him what each item was, and how it was used. When it was too dark to hunt, I thanked him and left.
That night I got a call from the pastor. He had decided, he said, that I should not come back on the church grounds, that all that digging might cause the hillside to wash, the congregation didn’t want me there, etc., etc. No amount of begging on my part could persuade him to change his mind.
But I still had permission to hunt the other church grounds, and a couple of days later I did so. And guess what I found when I returned? Yep. That pastor had his metal detector out scanning his own church grounds, digging relics. I got out and hunted the opposing church grounds right up to his church’s property line, all the while exchanging indecent glances with the renegade pastor.
That night I got another call from the pastor. He was quite upset. I’d gotten too close to his digging grounds with my detector and shovel. So he told me, in no uncertain terms, and in language no pastor I’ve ever known would use, the exact location of each and every property line. I was nice to him, though I had to grit my teeth, and I promised him I would never ever trespass upon his claim. In hindsight, I wish I had used some language just as strong as what he used with me.
You think it’s not a disease? Oh, but yes. Even the Holy are not immune.
I have a friend who is so badly afflicted with the addiction that he once used a bulldozer to unearth the treasures lying in a local river at the scene of one of the battles of the War. Of course, the EPA and the Corps of Engineers were quite upset with him, and he wisely abandoned the project.
A great aspect of the treasure-hunting hobby is this: Treasure hunting is for everyone. Young men and women, old men and women, kids, even those who are handicapped if they can read a newspaper and operate a telephone, or have access to a computer. Let me give you a striking example:
I recently met an elderly gentleman who had brought along some bottles for me to take a look at, with the thought that I might purchase them. In the course of our conversation I learned that he had a metal detector, and that he had found lots of War relics. I was taken aback, for the gentleman was obviously advanced in age. I asked him his age, and he replied that he was 89. Naturally, I wanted to know how long he’d been relic hunting, but when he told me “about 15 years,” I realized that he’d begun the hobby at the age of 74! In the ensuing year he and I shared spots and hunted together; I developed a great respect for him. He’s well over 90 now, and still digging. And he has a fine collection.
When I speak of “treasure” I’m referring to anything that can be converted to cash. By that definition, real estate is treasure. So are automobiles. Rare paintings. Oil wells. You get the drift. Within the context of my treasure-hunting experience, however, the perception of treasure will be primarily assigned to money, antiques and collectibles. This definition hardly limits the number of things that can be classified as treasure. The list includes: Coins. Currency, especially collectible notes. Bullion. Stamps. Jewelry. Antique furniture. Guns. Gems. Rare documents. Clocks and watches. Knives. Autographs. Rare bottles. Railroad artifacts and documents. Audio records. Diaries. Tools. Stained glass. Old appliances. Clothing. Radios. Military artifacts. Photographs. Art glass and china. Carnival glass. Cookie jars. Dolls. Indian artifacts. Marbles. Baseballs and baseball cards. Decoys. Postcards. Books. Silverware. Paintings. Art work. Antique automobiles. Rugs. Tokens. Posters. Musical instruments. Insulators. Flags. Comic books. Fishing lures. Pens and pencils. And on and on and on.
I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve amassed a large collection of the “treasures” that I love over my forty years of searching. Perhaps after reading of my many experiences (if you’re so inclined), you’ll want to begin your own treasure-hunting expedition.

II. First experiences with a metal detector

Back in 1967 in Vicksburg, where I was a young Engineer working the startup of Mississippi’s largest power plant, I “caught the disease.” Working twelve-hour days or nights didn’t leave much time for leisure activities for any of us, but, somehow our plant Maintenance Supervisor found time, mainly when he could grab a few minutes during the weekends, to search the hills of Vicksburg with his Metrotech metal detector. Every Monday morning he would share his coffee break with us Engineers, and always would he have a button, or a cannon ball, or some other relic of the War to garnish his tales of the latest hunt. My interest was aroused, of course, but the man was far too smart to share too much, especially his digging spots. I bugged him long and often without success. He knew that once a digger’s spot becomes known, it will be swarmed by other diggers like hornets to a nest.
I had a wife and two children, all three in school, so I had little left each paycheck to waste on such foolishness as metal detectors. I investigated the various machines on the market and found my budget far too slim to afford a Metrotech or similar “really good” detector. I was something of a tinker, though, and when I discovered that a Heathkit detector kit could be purchased for $60.00 or so, I had found my means of entry into the world of treasure hunting. With screwdriver and soldering iron I assembled the Heathkit and tested its effectiveness in my backyard.
The next sunny weekend afternoon, my son Mike in tow, the two of us ventured forth with Heathkit and shovel in our 1965 VW to a spot I’d noticed along old Confederate Avenue where the grass was mowed and where our Confederate patriots just had to have entrenched themselves. I knew such was true, because cannons and monuments indicating just that were everywhere. Together Mike and I plodded almost solemnly to where the monuments indicated our boys had fought, a gently sloping hill near one of the cannons. I unlimbered the detector, put the head to the ground, and soon got a signal. “Mike!” I shouted after a shovelful of earth, “A Minie ball, I think!” Mike was as overjoyed as I, and together we intently scanned the earth. In a moment we had another Minie ball. “Mike, this is gonna be easy!” I told my son, “Just wait ‘til Monday, when I show that Maintenance Supervisor what we’ve found!”
I’d noticed an old black man and his wife seated on the front porch of their house immediately adjacent to our hunting field, but I’d paid them no mind, even though they seemed quite interested in our activities. The old man sat pulling on his pipe, blowing clouds of smoke into the air, while his wife watched us. As I dug for my third Minie ball, I heard the old man calling to me, “Hey, you! You and that boy!”
I was far too busy digging War relics to bother with him.
“Hey, you! What do you think you’re doing?”
The old guy was obviously jealous of my skill with the detector, so I looked up, gave him a toothy grin, and went back to digging.
“You fool!”
Now, this was too much. What in the world was wrong with the old guy?
“What?” I shouted at him, turning. “I'm busy. Whaddaya want?”
“You darn fool,” he shouted in return as he stabbed the back end of his pipe in our direction. “Don’t you know you’re digging in the Military Park?”
I had heard that digging in the Vicksburg National Military Park was against the rules.
“They’ll put you in jail!” he shouted. “They’ll fine you a thousand dollars!”
“Jail,” I whispered softly to Mike. “I think I heard about that.” I looked at my son. “You and me, Mike. Sharing a cell. And a thousand dollar fine…”
I gently raked dirt over my latest hole and paused to reflect as I scanned the horizon to make sure no Park Rangers were about. I said to Mike, “Son, maybe we better find another spot to dig.” Mike already had hold of my hand, tugging me away. “Yeah, Daddy,” he said earnestly, “Let’s go.”
Mike and I pretended we had planned to leave all along as we slunk back in the direction of our VW. We waved a gay bye-bye to the old man and his wife and drove on home with our two Minie balls.
The Heathkit detector, I soon found, while pitifully insufficient at ignoring small bits of iron, like nails, had an advantage over the more-discriminating Metrotech in that its depth capability was superior. I found that by very carefully tuning the two pots located on the head (I soldered small copper wire “knobs” onto them) I could achieve good “ground balance” and substantially improve the detector’s ability to locate deeply buried objects. With practice I learned to differentiate (somewhat) between the sound of small nails and the other “good” signals. Mike and I were ready for another expedition.
On a Saturday morning we climbed once again into our VW and headed for a hillside owned by my employer (I had done some research!) near the lines held by the Confederates during the siege. Mike played in the leaves that covered the hillsides while I hunted. With every Minie ball I dug my excitement grew. I felt sure this area had been hunted by other diggers, but they had apparently missed quite a few relics. Or was the Heathkit that much better than the other machines?
Soon I heard a huge blast from the Heathkit that could be no Minie ball – unless there were a hundred of them in one spot. Carefully I dug down a foot or more. When the shovel struck solid iron, I called Mike over. Together we finished uncovering a projectile – pointed on one end where a brass fuse protruded, strangely spiraled towards its hollow bottom. “It’s a cannon ball, Mike,” I said proudly. “Our first cannon ball!”
“But, Dad.” Mike looked puzzled. “Cannon balls are round.”
He was right. Wasn’t he? “Not a cannon ball, then, Mike. Something fired from a cannon, though.”
So excited were we that we toted our “cannon ball” and Minie balls to the VW and headed for home to try and learn more about our find. Mike sat in the front seat beside me, the projectile in his lap. As we wound our way through the curves of Confederate Avenue he turned to me and said, “Dad, do you think this thing could still blow up?”
I hadn’t really considered that possibility, but I thought about it and answered as truthfully as I knew how, “I guess it could, Mike. But I’m sure it’ll be okay until we get home.”
Mike very gently laid the shell beside him on the front seat, climbed into the VW’s back seat, and rode there the remainder of the way home. I was amused, but I was soon warned that projectiles from the war CAN explode.
I learned that the “cannon ball” was a 3.8” James Rifle shell, Type I, with a James percussion fuse (the Supervisor nearly had a stroke when I showed it to him and casually asked what it was). Eventually I drilled and washed the black powder from it. It’s now in my son’s collection, and one of his most treasured artifacts.
Not a week later, back on the relic trail, I dug a strange button, one whose obverse consisted of a bird apparently feeding its young, and upon whose reverse were inscribed the words “Extra Rich.” I had no idea what it could be, so next morning, certain that the Supervisor could identify the thing, I nonchalantly flipped it onto his desk before him and asked if he’d ever seen anything like it. Talk about stroke time! The poor guy nearly fell from his chair as he exclaimed, “Good God! A Louisiana Infantry button! Where’d you find it?”
I can’t begin to describe the joy I felt at his words. This relic-hunting business was like a competition, and the more the opposition squirmed, the more fun it was! Between the button and the James shell, my friend the Supervisor had become somewhat anguished. Soon, he had ordered and assembled his very own Heathkit metal detector.
I was on fire now. The “treasure bug” had bitten me, and I had contracted the disease. The late sixties to early seventies was a perfect time to dig relics in Vicksburg, for construction of the new Interstate Highway 20 was underway, housing projects were springing up all around the siege lines – clearing the ground for easy hunting – and people were generally quite willing to permit digging on their property. With each day bringing exposure of new stretches of what had been a part of Confederate and Union lines during the siege, I soon had a growing collection of relics of the War, including many artillery shells. In fact, the search for artillery shells became the primary objective of my hunts. Over the course of the next four years I dug ten, twenty, and thirty-pounder Parrott shells, flat-top and chill-nose Parrott bolts, James shells and bolts, types I & II, Hotchkiss shells and bolts from 3 to 4.2 inches diameter, spherical shells and shot in calibers 6-pounder, 12-pounder, 24 pounder, 32 pounder, 42 pounder, and 8, 9, 10, and 11 inch diameter, 3 inch, 3.67 inch, and 4.2 inch Schenkl shells, 3 inch and 4.2 inch Mullane shells and bolts, 3 inch Reads in bolt and shell, 6.4” tear-drop Read bolts, and Archer bolts, besides several tons of fragments that occupied a growing portion of my backyard. I also began a collection of the various types of Minie balls, specializing more in the rare Confederate bullets than in the more common Union types.
In 1971 I was transferred to Jackson, Mississippi, and in 1974 to Greenville, Mississippi, to start up the new Gerald Andrus power plant; duties and distance drastically curtailed the amount of time I was able to devote to hunting relics in Vicksburg. Perhaps I benefited from the relocation, however, as I learned that treasure exists in many different forms. I became a coin-shooter, a bottle-digger, and a flea-market fanatic. I developed a love for rare books, particularly of Southern origin and content, and became more appreciative of antique furniture and the art nouveau. I never lost my love of relic-hunting the Vicksburg area, though, and when I returned there in 1978, my love affair was renewed.

III. Digging adventures 1

The success Mike and I had during our initial hunting trips resulted at least in part from research (we went where the monuments were!), though I must admit the research was rather superficial. Without research, the odds of locating many of the thousands of attractive sites around Vicksburg (such as old schoolyards, battle and campsites, old house sites and old towns, early swimming holes, etc.) would have been nearly impossible I soon found that by asking a few questions (research) I could gain a lot of knowledge. Courthouse records, old maps and diaries, and conversations with people who are familiar with this area all played a part in my discoveries.
Another digging buddy of mine (who contracted the disease a while after I did), once came to me with a document he’d located that described gunboat action against Confederate positions far south of Vicksburg. Since the position was very well described in the document, we investigated. On our first day out we dug three Union cannon balls, all with the brass fuses containing ordinance designation, date, and anchor icon. On subsequent trips we located over forty of the round balls along with other large caliber projectiles. Viva la research!
When I returned to Vicksburg from Greenville in 1978 I began once again to research the area for sites of battles, camps, plantations, etc. My interest was especially piqued by study of the old town of Warrenton, Mississippi, the first county seat of Warren County, which had been not only a fair-sized town, but which hosted the Confederate and Union armies during the War and was the site of at least two Confederate forts that fought numerous battles with Union gunboats during 1862 and 1863. With the possibility of finding both coins and relics of the War, I found the old town most tempting – especially since it was now open fields.
I inquired of local historians, studied old courthouse maps that showed in detail the layout of the town, and talked to locals who knew where the town was located. Soon I managed to meet the old man who was farming the fields where the now-defunct town once stood, and obtained his grudging permission to hunt the area. My assessment of the town’s treasure-hunting potential was not underestimated. Within a few days I had dug several coins from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many bullets and buttons not only from the War, but which dated to the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
But it came to a sudden end.
One Saturday I had parked my old Bronco (the VW was long gone) alongside one of the plowed fields, turned out my two small Cairn Terriers so they could enjoy the outing with me, and was proceeding to hunt, when I heard a truck approach. I watched as the farmer arrived, and I waved a friendly salute. He was anything but friendly.
Jumping from his truck he began to curse me and my dogs. I didn’t find out until later, but this farmer was about as looney as a bear on psychedelic mushrooms. I couldn’t understand why he was so upset (I still don’t know why, but, then, how do you begin to understand nuts?). I tried to reason with him: “Joe (not his real name),” I said, “it’s me. Malcolm. Don’t you remember giving me permission to hunt out here?”
“I don’t give a d… who you are or what I said,” he shouted, “get your g-d… dogs and get out of here.” With that, he approached one of my Cairn Terriers and kicked him. The Terrier wasn’t badly hurt, but his squeal at the time made my blood boil.
“You (censored)!” I shouted as I headed in his direction, “I’ll rip your d… head off with my bare hands!”
I wasn’t fast enough to stop him from grabbing his rifle from the floorboard of his truck. He held it up, took deliberate aim at my forehead, and said, “I’ll shoot you square between the eyes, you (censored), if you don’t take that back.”
Now, I must admit, I go a little crazy when I’m threatened, and my actions now confirmed it, because I said, very clearly, “You (censored). I’ll leave, but only because you’ve got a gun and I don’t.”
He kept the rifle trained on me as I loaded my dogs and drove away.
I wasn’t about to give up on this spot. The possibilities were just too great. So I (and Pete Shead) again did some research, this time to find out who owned the land upon which old Warrenton once existed. We found that the lots that had originally been laid out were still extant, even after all these years, and that they were owned by many different people and companies. We called them, one by one, and asked if they were willing to sell. We were in luck. We found one owner who was quite willing. And he owned the bulk of the lots upon which most of the houses of Warrenton had been built!
BUY! If you want the best of all relic-hunting experiences – the ability to hunt at will, to deny others the same right, the leisure of doing it whenever you want without fear of conflict, BUY THE LAND UNDER WHICH THE RELICS LIE!
I did. And when that inevitable day came when the then-irate-now-docile farmer drove up, got out of his truck, and meekly asked if I was the one who had bought the land down here… JOY! And I told him to leave my property, and never set foot on it again. JOY!
Before he left, he looked at me and he said, “You know, you’re crazy.”
“Yep,” I answered, smiling. “I am crazy.”
In subsequent years I and my hunting buddies dug many relics from the house sites, camps, and forts that were old Warrenton; more on these later.

IV. Digging adventures 2

One thing I learned very early was that it pays to always get permission to hunt anyone’s property, preferably in writing. That helps avoid embarrassing confrontations with angry landowners, and perhaps keeps one out of jail. I must admit that there have been times when I have been so tempted by the sight of a hilltop freshly cleared by heavy equipment that I couldn’t help but pull over and check it. I have met landowners in this fashion who have been most tolerant, and others who have been downright nasty. Thus it’s always best to avoid confrontations by getting permission first. The lesson has been taught me well, for I have been guilty of allowing my gusto to overcome my appreciation for honorable behavior. I will share with you a couple of my most anxious moments, and not share with you a couple of other incidents that I choose not to recall.
The first one wasn’t really my fault. A friend had asked me to reconnoiter a spot with him that he felt had been a Union artillery emplacement, and which might yield a few Confederate artillery shells. It turned out the area was just behind a Vicksburg church parking lot, upon which we parked our vehicle. Together we walked into the woods and explored a mound of earth that was very likely just what we were looking for. We decided we would come back with our detectors the next day. As we walked from the woods back onto the concrete of the parking lot, I heard a scream of fury.
She was the type of woman you immediately know not to mess with. I know this type well (she wasn’t the first). She wore baggy half-thigh shorts and an open front shirt whose tails flopped as she walked, and which exposed the center of her flat-chest bra. Like most of these exceptionally mean old bats I’ve come across, she sported those heavy creases in her rough-textured mug that were furrowed there by sun, smoke, frowns and curses – you’ve seen the type. Her shoes were loose, and they flippity-flapped as her knock-kneed jaunt brought her rapidly in our direction. She had the ever-present (I’m sure) filter-less cigarette flopping from her lips.
Just the appearance of the old gal would have normally scared hell out of me. Worse, I now surmised, she was wagging a pistol in her right hand as she trailed a stream of smoke and swore. It was no normal pistol. I know that the heat of the moment, and time, have combined to exaggerate the thing in my memory, but I would swear today that that pistol had the longest barrel of any pistol I’ve ever seen. It must have been two feet long.
“You ^%$#@!” she yelled at the top of her lungs. “What the hell are doing on my property?”
I raised a hand to protest our innocence – my buddy had permission, right? The woman kept right on coming, wagging that long-barreled pistol and streaming clouds of smoke. When I heard the engine roar behind me, I knew I’d better jump aboard or be left to die.
“Don’t you come back here!” the “lady” screamed as I jerked the car door open and leaped inside, “You ^%&@# better not come back on my property!”
“You #@&%?!” I told my pal as he squalled away. “You told me you had permission to walk that property!”
He just shrugged and rolled his eyes. “Guess we’ll forget about hunting there,” he said – as if that weren’t quite obvious.
The other example of non-permission fiasco that I’m willing to share occurred in the hills north of Vicksburg. Our company had cleared the right-of-way under our high-voltage power lines where the lines cut through a section of Confederate entrenchments that had been under fire from the Union gunboats back in 1862 and 1863. Obviously, I was eager to dig a few large cannon balls, so I headed that way after work one summer afternoon. There were no other hunters around when I arrived, a fact I thought strange since clearing of the area was common knowledge. What the heck? More for me.
I unlimbered the detector and had hunted for about thirty minutes in the cleared area beneath the power lines, very near the highway, when I noticed a pickup truck that had pulled over and parked near my own vehicle. I continued my detecting, but with an eye in that direction, and watched as a large gentleman in rough clothing stepped from the truck. He stood for a moment and beat at his dusty clothes, not even looking in my direction, and I sighed with relief; the guy had probably just pulled over to take a whiz. But as he reached inside and plucked a rifle from the gun rack that most local hunters around Vicksburg have installed over their rear window, I realized it was not a whiz that held his interest, but me.
He slammed the truck door and, holding the rifle at his side with one hand, the barrel pointing straight at his foot, he began to walk in my direction. At this point I decided to mentally reexamine the logic I’d earlier used to convince myself that “right-of-way” meant something like “ownership.” I came to the sudden conclusion that maybe I’d been fooling myself; “right-of-way” might mean something like the “right to run power lines,” not the “right to hunt relics…”
I wasn’t so scared that it was me taking a whiz now, but I was close. The man and the rifle kept getting bigger and bigger – especially the rifle – as he came on. As he neared me I recognized him – a boilermaker – a boilermaker who was working an outage at my plant!
The latter discernment might have made me feel safer, except that this particular boilermaker was a well-known nutcake. Everybody knew he was crazy. The only reason he was still in the union was that they were afraid to blackball him. One rumor had it that he was guilty of several unsolved murders in the area.
“Hey there, Carl (not his real name),” I said quite nervously as he neared me. He stopped when I spoke his name, and stared at me as if trying to figure out how I knew he was “Carl.”
“Just metal detecting.” I said lamely with a big toothy grin.
“Hmmm,” he said after a moment, frowning. No, correction, I couldn’t tell if he was frowning or if the look on his face was just confusion. God! I thought. This guy really is nuts! He’s gonna kill me!
“Yeah, it’s me,” I said good-naturedly. Good ole Malcolm. Just one of us guys. “Trying to dig a few of them little Minie balls. Bullets.”
He stared at me. And stared at me. And stared some more. When he suddenly let loose a stream of soggy tobacco juice that landed near one of my boots, I darn near ruined my jeans.
“I know you,” he said in such a soft voice I could barely hear him.
“Yeah! The plant! Baxter Wilson! Plant Manager!”
“Huntin’ bullets.”
“Yep. That’s my hobby. I always cover my holes, too. Never know I was here.”
“Huntin’ bullets.”
I didn’t know whether to answer in the affirmative again or just grin so he would think I was as crazy as he was.
He looked at my boots, shook his head a couple more times, then repeated, “Huntin’ bullets.” Then he turned without another word and walked back to his truck, got in, and drove away.
Talk about relief! I sat down on a stump for awhile to let my nerves calm a bit, and thanked heaven for my reprieve. What a brush with death! I was lucky I wasn’t covered with 30-caliber holes!
But, as I’ve said before, I have the disease. And I’m crazy. I perked up. I proceeded to use the same logic any idiot digger would use. The cowboy hadn’t said I couldn’t hunt his property, had he? In fact, his reluctance to shoot me was as good as written permission-to-hunt, wasn’t it? Darn! I had permission to hunt this property as long as I wanted! And I had it all to myself! If any other relic hunter came out here, old Crazy Carl and his trusty 30-06 would change their minds, wouldn’t he?
I got off the stump and went back to relic hunting.
As an aside, this area was the site that was heavily shelled by Union gunboats during and before Sherman took a licking at the Battle of Chickasaw Bayou and during the battles of May, 1863, as that well known barbarian, U. S. Grant, moved to encircle Vicksburg. I eventually dug enough six-pounder solid balls, rings, bolts and plates to assemble two complete stands of eight-inch grape. Big balls (8”, 9”, 10”, and 11”) and hundred-pounder Parrott shells were also recovered from this site.
One other folly that resulted from failure to gain permission to hunt a site deserves to be mentioned. It occurred when my friend, the aforementioned Maintenance Supervisor, was observed scanning the grounds around a very old church in Warren County. He had hunted this area a number of times without incident, but in this particular instance the person who witnessed the event decided to write a “letter to the editor” of the Vicksburg Evening Post. The letter was published, and in it the man was accused of everything from trespassing and grave robbing to the destruction of valuable archeological artifacts. The writer recommended further that there be a law passed to put an end to such activities. That article affected the local relic hunting populous to some extent, but to my friend, a very sensitive person, it was devastating. He abandoned the hobby; only years later, when I returned to Vicksburg from Greenville as Plant Manager of Baxter Wilson, did I convince him to pick up his metal detector again. I took him to Warrenton, where he dug quite a few US buckles and Mississippi buttons. I’ll never forget that Maintenance Supervisor. He was the type of friend you seldom find and always need.

V. Digging adventures 3

Our county was home to several tribes of Indians for centuries, and was settled by Europeans over three hundred years ago. So there’s lots of history here. There’s hardly a square inch of land that hasn’t seen some type of human activity. I’ve hunted deep woods in Warren County where there was no indication there had ever been anyone there before me, only to find square nails by the score. So we’re not limited by hunting spots; it’s just a matter of finding a vacant lot or a likely hilltop, getting permission, and going to it. If a spot is attractive to us, chances are it was coveted as well by others long ago. That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t do his research in order to locate old house sites, ball fields, fairgrounds, old schoolhouses, camps and skirmishes related to the war, etc., for research can give one a big advantage if he’s to make the big discoveries. But, no mistake about it, relics are just about everywhere in this part of the country. I dug a Confederate belt plate in the backyard of my Drummond Street home several years ago. How’s that for proof?
And this: a vacant lot along Cherry Street that I hunted several years ago. There was nothing about the lot to suggest that there were relics of the war, but there’s always the possibility of finding a good coin around the site of an old house. So I contacted the president of the bank that owned the lot and received permission to hunt it. To my surprise I found the lot was apparently a part of a cavalry camp, for bullets and buttons and even a US oval buckle and a martingale turned up. [A martingale is (generally) a heart-shaped decorated lead-filled brass plate that was fitted to the center-chest portion of the harness of a horse – they’re quite collectible].
Another example that comes to mind concerns a Mississippi River landing on the Louisiana shore near Vicksburg that during the war had houses and settlers. Cotton and other goods were ferried across the river to and from Vicksburg from the landing. A couple of my buddies and I had always considered the landing a very attractive possible location for Union troops, both army and navy. With a little research we found the published diary of an officer of the Union army in which he described how he and his men had set up a 20-pounder Parrott rifle nearby and had fired at the Confederates from this emplacement. The Confederate forces, of course, fired back.
After obtaining permission to hunt the area, my hunting buddies and I loaded our gear into a boat, motored over to the Louisiana shore, and proceeded with the search. We had hunted for over an hour before anything of significance was found. I had made my way atop a small mound of vine-covered dirt when my detector whined in a good way, letting me know there was a “good,” though small, signal a few inches down. A shovel-full of dirt later I was delighted to pluck an 1856 half dime from the loosened soil. That half dime proved that a human had spent at least a moment of time about 125 years before right where I was standing. I yelled at my buddies, who were quick to take advantage (once a “find” is made and the finder is dumb enough to announce it, everybody within hearing distance quits whatever they are doing so that they can congregate and share the “good spot”). As they approached, one of them stopped, and with a look of surprise on his face, squealed, “Malcolm! You know what you’re standing on?” I looked around, and to my own surprise, I saw what he meant: I was standing on a small half-moon ridge that had been the breastwork of an artillery fortification. We had found the union officer’s artillery emplacement, and it had changed little since the war.
Now the fun really began, for the hunt became very productive. We began to find large 9” and 10” spherical shells all around the “fort,” these being shells fired from a Confederate artillery position far across the Mississippi. For the Civil War relic hunter, there’s no sound that can compare to the wide, smooth, bloated, spherical signal he hears when he’s located a large buried projectile. For those of you who are dumb enough to waste your time playing golf, hearing that beautiful signal must feel to the relic hunter something like a hole-in-one experience for you. One grows to love it. Our group had a terrific time that day.
Once we had several shells located and uncovered, the problem became “how do we get them out of the holes and lug the things a quarter mile to the boat?” The 10” shells were so heavy we couldn’t pull them from the holes, much less tote them a quarter mile. No bright ideas came forward until a member of our party hit upon a brilliant plan, to wit, we could use a pair of jeans! The simple process would be to reach down in the hole, slide the waist of the jeans under and over the ball, tighten the waistline with the belt, and yank the ball from the hole by the legs of the jeans. We all knew it would work, so now we needed a volunteer. At this point the size and strength of the various members of our party was of significant bearing on modesty and humiliation. Who would be willing to give up their jeans and walk out in their undies?
The puniest member of our party was finally captured and relieved of his pants. We promised that we would return his jeans after the last trip to our boat and before the possibility that he would be observed by some member of the boating public. This seemed to placate him somewhat, and his pants were put to work immediately.
The scheme worked as well as we had hoped. Soon we had several balls stacked alongside the fort. But these shells were very heavy, and we found after hauling one back to the boat, one member of our party holding one pant leg, another the other, that the awkwardness and effort required were more than we were willing to endure. We decided to stash the remainder of our treasure and return later, better prepared to transport them.
The next day we returned with an extra pair of old pants and a padded double eight-foot two-by-four for use in transporting the balls between two shoulders. Soon we relieved the Yankee fort of much of its Confederate treasure. In our several trips to the landing we brought out more than a dozen 9” and 10” cannon balls fired by the Confederates from their fortifications across the river. Fortunately, some photos of that adventure survived.
Installation of the cannon-ball extractor
Operation of the cannon-ball extractor
And finally... I was one happy digger
Years later, as construction of one of Vicksburg’s casinos progressed, I located on a hillside above the old river bed one of the 20-pounder Parrott shells that had been fired by the Union rifles some 130 years before.

VI. Digging adventures 4

The strength of the signal produced by a metal detector when it senses metal is directly proportional to the surface area presented the coil by the metal object. For example, a coin lying edge-up in soil will produce a weaker, and perhaps unstable, signal as compared to a coin lying flat in soil. The same goes for a brass button; many of them have been missed for that reason. I learned that it is best to DIG when the detector gives any indication of metal, particularly non-ferrous metal, no matter how miniscule or unstable the signal.
By the same token, I also learned to never ignore those big signals by just assuming they’re trash or an old barbed wire fence. Twice in my hobby career (that I recall) I’ve almost walked away from great discoveries when I thought that either my detector was lying to me, or that I’d stumbled across a rusty steel drum buried three or four feet deep.
On one such occurrence, while searching along the riverbank near some early-war Confederate fortifications, I encountered a signal some six feet across. Since you often encounter buried cables, beams, and cast-off metal items from towboats and barges along the riverbank, I came very near to moving on. However, you’re never sure, and just to be sure, I dug. In that hole, which eventually measured some eight feet across, I found 19 Confederate round balls – most were 8” and 9” shells – apparently dumped there some 130 years before. It took two days of digging to get them all out. They were located over a mile from my truck (yes, my ’65 VW, and later my old ’74 Bronco, had been replaced by a pickup truck), so there was no way I could carry one 50 or 60 pound ball that far, much less 19. So I left the balls that day and drove home, scratching my head, trying to figure a good way to move the balls from hole to truck. And I conceived a brilliant plan for relocating 19 cannon balls one-mile distance.
I would use my motorcycle!
It so happened that a railroad track was near my treasure hole, and this same track ran very near where my truck was parked, a mile away. Next afternoon after work I loaded the motorcycle onto the truck, drove to my parking spot, unloaded the bike, road the mile or so to the treasure hole along the crossties between the rails, and loaded a single 8” ball behind the bike’s seat. But 8” cannon balls are HEAVY, and bouncing them along railroad ties on the back seat of a motorcycle can ruin tires, wheels, even frames. The bike and I made it to the truck okay, but the bike was damaged in the process, and would be a total wreck if I continued. I knew I had to come up with a better way.
Of course, I’d thought of using a wheelbarrow, but had already discarded the idea because of the obstacles presented by irregular crossties and loose slag. But another thought occurred to me. The rails were nice and smooth… if only I could place the wheel of the wheelbarrow on a rail without its sliding off…
And that’s how I did it. In my shop I fabricated two thin semi-circular steel plates, each about twelve inches in diameter, each with a hole in its center. By fastening the plates on either side of the wheelbarrow wheel, I ensured the wheel would remain on the rail.
Back at the treasure hole I loaded the balls one at a time into the wheelbarrow and easily walked them back to my truck atop a shiny steel rail.
Now, you’re wondering about trains, right? Sure enough, on one trip back I heard a big diesel engine, the sound coming from around a long curve ahead of me. In my haste to remove the loaded wheelbarrow and myself from the rail, the 8” ball fell between the tracks. I watched anxiously from behind a tree as the locomotive approached. Fortunately, the engineer must never have seen it, for the train never slowed, passing right over the old Confederate ordinance. I recovered the ball and continued on my way, eventually unloading all 19 balls in my back yard.
The second large signal I’m happy I decided not to ignore occurred while a friend and I were hunting the fields at the scene of the Battle of Big Black River, east of Vicksburg. The detector whined over an area some ten feet across – not a solid signal, but a series of long, deep, signals that had no sharp ends – meaning (most likely) either heavy, symmetrical iron, or non-ferrous metal. We had dug a number of plow points during the day, so I considered that these were more. But – when you’re not sure, as I said, DIG!
After we had pulled over 6,000 Confederate Minie balls (primarily “Georgia” Minies with teat bases and Enfields with “L2” bases) and musket balls from that one hole, I was glad we had. Apparently, captured Confederates had been disarmed in the area; we also found musket locks and butt plates along with the bullets.

Yes, that's a cold beer in my hand in the photo.

VII. Non-dug treasures 1

One of the most-read parts of the Vicksburg Post is the classified ads section, and of that, the “Garage and Yard Sale” category probably ranks in the top three categories. These ads bring out hundreds of shoppers looking for bargains, or better yet, that overlooked treasure that can be worth thousands. I must admit, I’m one of those early-morning nuts who rush from sale to sale on Friday and Saturday mornings, always trying to “get there first.”
A few weeks ago, early on a Saturday morning, after having bolted from one sale to another without finding a thing of interest, I spied an ad for a sale that had a 9AM starting time. 9AM is a strange time to begin a yard sale, since most begin at 6AM or 7AM, but, it being only 8:30AM now, and my just happening to be only a few blocks from the address listed in the Post, I decided to drive by and check it out.
I arrived at the house just as another vehicle pulled into its carport. When the driver, a lady, opened her trunk and began removing boxes, I, of course, offered to help. It took about ten minutes to relocate her yard-sale items from trunk to living room, which circumstance allowed me to take a look at everything she had to sell. In conversation with her I learned that the house belonged to a friend, for whom she was holding the sale, and that she’d brought along some things that had belonged to her son when he was a young man. Naturally, though 9 AM had not arrived, I asked if I might browse. Happily for me, she consented. I found a few small items that I set aside, but most interesting was a box of old 45RPM records – I could see that they were early labels - on which she had attached a slip of paper that read “twenty-five cents each.” Other treasure hunters were arriving by now, some of whom seemed quite interested in the records as well, so I hastily cornered the lady and asked what she would take for the whole box. “Oh, I guess five dollars,” she replied. “Done,” I told her, and I gathered my box of records from the arms of an unhappy competitor, paid for my booty, and left.
Back at my home I carefully unpacked the records and, one by one, examined them. To my delight I found that not only were they in great condition, but they were of the early rock and roll era. There were songs by The Big Bopper, Chuck Berry, The Coasters, The Everly Brothers, and the prize: An Elvis Presley song on the original “Sun Records” label. If you’re not familiar with the value collectors place on these records, take a look on eBay. I eventually sold the Presley record for a huge profit (several hundred dollars) and several of the others for $25.00 - $35.00 each.
A while back at another yard sale I picked up an item I’d never seen before – a small cigar of metal that had a band labeled “Non Plus Ultra” and which came apart to reveal a cork screw. I guessed it was an advertising item from the 30s or 40s, so I decided to buy it. With a little research I found it to be very collectible; I sold it on eBay for ninety times what I paid for it.
Years ago the yard sales and flea markets seemed to offer more good collectibles and rare finds than they do nowadays, but I attribute that to China and eBay, to wit: Americans buy Chinese junk by the tons/millions, they and their children tire of it quickly, and it goes on the yard-sale auction block. More junk, less value. And eBay. EBay has changed everything in the collectibles arena, and has even affected the type and price of goods offered in yard sales.
But collectibles related to Vicksburg are always valuable to collectors here (and elsewhere, due to our history), so I always buy anything related to our town that is oldish and reasonably priced. One Saturday morning I made my first stop at a mid-twentieth-century house only a few blocks from my own. The occupants were still in the process of moving boxes of items from inside the house onto the lawn. I saw nothing of interest to me there, but since this is Vicksburg, and you never know what might turn up, I asked the owner if he had anything “old” – like old records, photos, military relics, bottles, dolls, etc. He thought for a minute, then replied, “Yeah, we do have a box of old pictures. We don’t want them. Maybe you can do something with them.”
After a few minutes inside the owner returned with a box containing some thirty glossy 8 X 10 black and white photographs. When I saw that the top photo was of a steamboat at Vicksburg’s waterfront, I asked the price. “How about twenty bucks?” he answered. I paid him without hesitation; now I could hardly wait to finish my rounds so that I could examine the photographs more closely.
Back at home, I found that the photos were original prints of many different 1890 era steamboats, not only taken and developed by famous local photographer J. Mack Moore, but individually signed by Mr. Moore as well. For some months afterwards I considered the photographs too dear to part with. Eventually, though, I had the best mounted and framed; they now occupy a prominent spot on the wall of my apartment. The rest were sold in one lot to a collector - for a lot more than twenty bucks.
Another Saturday morning when I was faced with the miserable fact that the day’s hunt would yield no great treasure, the lesson was driven home to me once again: never give up! I made a final stop at a small house whose owner had sold nearly everything she’d put out – I mean, her driveway was practically bare. She’d even retired inside, content with what had apparently been quite an enriching Saturday morning. I browsed through what little junk was left, then spotted a lone book resting atop a retaining wall alongside her driveway. One lousy book, I thought. However, when I inspected it, I found it was a Hemingway, and its copyright date looked singularly interesting. I roused the lady from her contented lair, asked the price, and paid her ten-cents. Yep. It turned out to be a first edition, second state of one of Hemingway’s first novels. I’m not a collector of fiction, so I sold the book for a very tidy profit of approximately 150,000.00 %.
Another morning a lady in one of the older sections of town insisted that I buy two old trunks she had had for some years. I did. One was a leather-wrapped Jenny Lind trunk labeled with the name “Rebecca” – a packet boat that ran between Vicksburg and Memphis during and after the Civil War. Talk about happy! I collect artifacts from Vicksburg and its war, so that one went into my collection.
I love yard sales.

VIII. Digging adventures 5

As noted in my initial piece on the subject, I (and Mike) learned on our very first hunt a rule that governs the relic-hunting crowd: Never hunt relics on federal property, nor on other property where it is illegal to do so. If you take a metal detector onto federal property with the intent to hunt, you’re subject to arrest, imprisonment, and a huge fine. It doesn’t matter that government property is the peoples’ property. The federal government has assumed it has control of the land and all the relics therein/there under, and the government and its Ranger representatives will take great joy in arresting you and pursuing you via the courts, regardless of your most innocent of intentions.
This latter assertion is indeed fact, for some employees of the federal government, and particularly the National Park Service, exhibit extreme malice toward relic hunters. That, of course, brings on a story or two of my encounters with some of the more aggressive members of that group.
Some months after our first expedition with a metal detector, son Mike and I located a ravine near the Vicksburg National Military Park, behind Confederate lines, that appeared to have potential. I’d talked with nearby landowners, and although there were several, had obtained the necessary permission to hunt the area of most interest.
On the next opportune day we parked alongside a county road leading into the park, but well outside its lines. Soon Mike watched the birds and occupied himself with a knife and sharpened stick spears while I scanned a hillside above the ravine with my detector. On the hillside on the opposite side of the ravine were the NPS boundary stakes; I made sure to keep well away from them.
Sometime later I noticed a Park Ranger’s vehicle passing on the road near where I had parked. As it slowed near my VW, then turned and drove the opposite direction, I paid it little attention; I knew I was not on NPS property. However, several minutes later, suddenly, from behind a nearby tree, a Park Ranger sprang, hand on the pistol at his waist, shouting at the top of his lungs, “You’re under arrest! You’re on Park property!”
Needless to say, I jumped ten feet into the air at the unexpected interruption. When I fell back from the treetops, I stared at the Ranger in amazement and said, in a not-so-friendly tone, “What the hell are you talking about? I’m not on Park property.” Pointing across the ravine, I continued, “Park lines are way over on that ridge.”
“No, they’re not!” he shouted.
“Yes,” I replied, “they are. You want to go over and see?”
“Give me your metal detector,” he demanded, reaching for it with one hand while keeping the other on his gun.
Things had happened so fast that I hadn’t thought about Mike, but just then I felt him wrap both arms around my leg. I looked down into the face of a little boy filled with terror, crying his eyes out as he shrank from the sight of the armed, loud-mouthed Park Ranger. I lost my temper then.
“You %#*@& piece of %$#?@!” I screamed at him, “You have scared my little boy half to death! And we’re not on Park property, you %#$*@!”
“Let’s go,” he said, pointing back toward the road.
I gave the Ranger my detector, comforted Mike as best I could, told him things were going to be fine, then gave the Park Ranger an unholy blessing as we were marched from the ridge to his car. Mike and I were placed in the back seat and driven to the Visitors’ Center at the VNMP.
The Visitors’ Center (the old one that’s now been razed) had a huge room below the main level that was apparently used for meetings, conferences, etc., and which contained two or three long tables alongside of which were rows of chairs. I know my memory has magnified the event, but it seems now that the tables were as long as a football field. The Park Ranger had notified the City Police, the Sheriff’s Department, the Superintendent and his staff of the National Park, and maybe the FBI and CIA for all I know, for several representatives of these and other organizations were soon seated near the center of one long table. Mike and I were told to sit opposite them. So it was twenty-five people on one side of the mile-long table, little Mike and myself on the other.
We were grilled. Why were we there? How long had we been there? Did I know it was unlawful to relic hunt on Federal property? Did I know the penalty for hunting on Federal property? Did I know that the VNMP had recently purchased property in that area, and that even if it wasn’t marked, I was still guilty of breaking a Federal law? Did I know the penalty for threatening a Federal officer?
They kept it up for a good forty-five minutes. I denied being on VNMP property, they insisted I was. Since they were obviously ignorant, I offered to go out there and show them where the lines were; they would have none of it. In the end they gave my detector back to me and told me they would notify me as to how my “case” would be resolved. My last words were, “Either you send me a letter of apology, or I will sue you.”
Mike and I went on home, where I talked to him and assured him that it was all a mistake, and that everything would be fine. He and I laughed about the whole thing.
A few days later I got a letter from the Superintendent of the VNMP stating that I had not been on Park property, but with a warning that I had better not ever let that happen. The latter left me fuming again. I considered taking legal action against them, but finally shrugged it off. My main concern was Mike, and he seemed to have recovered from the incident – he even had new words in his vocabulary.
I continued to hunt that same area, and several months later once again came under Park Ranger surveillance. I had come out of the woods and was placing my metal detector in the trunk of my car when I heard a rustle on the hillside far above me. There they were. Two of them. They had been watching as I hunted the ravine (and I had made a point of hunting to within two inches of their lines). I waved gaily at them, locked my detector in the trunk, drove inside Park boundaries, got out, waved at them again, then got in my car and drove home. They did not, by the way, wave back.
The spot we were hunting behind Confederate lines produced a rare pewter Confederate eagle button, the only one I have ever dug, and the first of two examples of collided bullets that I’ve found over the years. The collision of the two fifty-eight-caliber Minie balls is distinct and obvious, and an extremely rare find, for although the bullets were flying during the siege, the chance that any two would meet in flight and join together is infinitesimally small.
My relationship with Park personnel has improved since that time. I now know many by names other than %$#?@. A while back I drove into the Visitors’ Center, unaware that my metal detectors were in plain view in the back of my SUV (man, vehicles have come and gone!). After I drove from the guardhouse to the parking lot, the gate guard called in the Rangers, who found me in the gift shop studying a book on the war. “Oh, it’s you, Malcolm,” the Ranger said when he saw me.
“Yeah,” I answered, puzzled by his remark. “What’s up?”
“Your metal detectors are in your car. Don’t you know you’re not supposed to bring them in here unless they’re disassembled?”
“Oh. Heck,” I answered. “Guess I forgot.” The Ranger sighed and walked away.

IX. Non-dug treasures 2

Auctions and estate sales here in Vicksburg and in other locations have been a great source of treasure for me. One thing that I’ve found (and never really mastered) is that knowledge is key to grabbing bargains. I try to do my homework by visiting the site prior to the auction or sale, taking along a pad and pencil, a loupe, and maybe a tape measure and a camera, so I can list and photograph the items that I find interesting. That way, I can research their value prior to the action. I have a library for that purpose, but the most useful tool of all is eBay. eBay is a remarkable research site. Once I’ve come up with a value, I decide how high I’ll bid (taking into account the damnable “buyer’s premium”).
I also learned that sales that feature the estates of ethnic groups, especially Native American or African-American, can yield some exciting finds. Several years ago at the auction of the estate of a locally-prominent African-American I purchased for $20.00 a small bookcase filled with books. Among the treasures it yielded was a signed copy of Alice Walker’s scarce title, “Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems.” Walker, you might remember, also wrote “The Color Purple,” a book on which a film of the same name was produced. “Revolutionary Petunias” alone produced a profit of 3,000 % on the total purchase. And that wasn’t the only rare book in the lot.
Vicksburg has several thrift shops and pawnshops, and all have good sources of treasure for me. I visit them often, as the merchandise is in a constant state of flux. Unfortunately, in recent years the managers of most of these shops have become more aware of the value of certain collectibles and as such have begun to skim off the better items before placing them out for public sale. For example, I visited a local thrift shop a while back and found that someone had dropped off a large stack of vintage LP albums. The shop manager, I learned, had removed all the Elvis Presley records and had sold them for a good profit on eBay. But, I figured, everybody knows that the records of Elvis Presley sell at a premium. What else was in the stack? Among the LPs I bought for 25 cents each were several early rock and roll discs, including Gene Vincent’s “Bluejean Bop.” I sold it for over $100, and then sold several of the others for twenty to thirty dollars each.
EBay’s usefulness for research into the value of collectibles is unequalled; however, there are times when nothing comparable can be found either on eBay or in reference books by which a value can be established for a particular item. When that happens, I’ll usually place it for sale on eBay just to see what develops. I can think of two sales in particular where that practice paid off. In one case, I’d bought three WWII helmets at a garage sale. They looked like junk to me, but on a hunch I paid $50 for the three. A little investigation proved they were German helmets, and I knew from checking eBay that there was a ready collectors’ market for them. But there are many different types of Germen helmets, and I didn’t know much about any of them. So I placed the three on eBay with plenty of photos and a description of the numbers, letters, etc., with which the helmets were marked. To my surprise, one of the helmets turned out to be a “Camo” – a helmet that has been painted for camouflage. It sold for over $800.00. The other two sold for enough to more than cover my original investment.
The second item was a token I’d found somewhere earlier, perhaps dug some years earlier while relic hunting, perhaps from some other source. It was octagonal in shape and had “Navasota, Texas” engraved upon it. There was no information anywhere regarding such a token, so I placed it on eBay. It surprised me by selling for $350.00 to a collector in Texas.
I have bought or traded for thousands of such small treasures over the years; Vicksburg is a remarkable source for treasure of many different kinds.

X. Diving adventures 1

Once you’re infected by the treasure-hunting bug, the disease will eventually affect your mental sensibilities. I guess that’s what happened to me. Although I had spent years digging relics and coins by the thousands on land, once I had read of a site in the Yazoo River where Confederate and Union soldiers had dumped literally tons of munitions, I became obsessed with the need to dig them from the river bottom. To that end I bought an underwater metal detector and awaited an opportunity to use it. I had no knowledge of diving techniques, so it was either take a course in scuba diving or find some experienced divers to do the work for me.
As luck would have it, at that opportune moment problems with the circulating water intake screens at the power plant forced me to call in divers to investigate and make repairs. They had a boat, heavy equipment, and diving apparatus of all types. I had assigned one of my hunting buddies, an Engineer at the plant, to coordinate operations with the diving contractor. I had caused an infection of this Engineer, and he was now nearly as gold-bug diseased as I. Once his fertile mind began humming (with visions of a chest of Confederate coins lying on the river bottom, I’m sure), he went to work on the divers, convincing them that once the intake job was complete, it might be fun to make a run up the river to dive for a little treasure…
And so we did. The divers picked the Engineer and me up at the waterfront in their large boat with all the equipment we would need. They had more. Girls. Cute ones, in skimpy bathing suits, all the more to make this a memorable adventure. Unfortunately, as it turned out, they also had several coolers of iced-down beer.
So we drank beer and ogled the cuties as we roared up the river toward our rendezvous with treasure. Without divulging the exact location, let me say that we soon reached the vicinity. Once over the target we anchored and prepared for the dive. Though these divers had never used an underwater detector, I gave them instructions on the proper techniques.
Using an underwater detector is much like using one on land: get a signal, back off to determine size, and if it’s (in this case) not as large as a baseball, move on. Simple, right? But somehow these divers could never get the technique down. Dive after dive they scanned the bottom, each time returning empty-handed. While they worked, the rest of us drank beer after beer merely, of course, to prevent the sun from baking our hides. Between the cold beer and the hot cuties, I got quite high, so high, in fact, that I became… Superdiver!
I KNEW the relics were down there, and that I could do the job better than these would-be excuses for professional divers. When I voiced my disgust to them and suggested they give me a few lessons on how to use scuba gear, they, having likewise imbibed enough of the delicious brew that their judgment was no better than mine, agreed that I sure could strap on a tank and go find a cannon ball, smartass.
I wasn’t about to jump off the side of the boat into that rushing river, so I insisted I be put ashore, where I could walk serenely down the sandy bank at my leisure. That sounded like a good idea to the rest of the crew, so we all put ashore with coolers and scuba gear in tow. While I was strapping on my weight belt and air tank and the rest of the gear and receiving instructions, my Engineer buddy, who likewise had become addled and, aware of the admiring glances of the bikini-clad cuties as I donned my gear, had decided he could be just as much a hero as I. He would try his hand at it, too.
After donning tank, belt, etc., etc., and receiving my instructions, sure now that I was as expert at this science as my teachers, I gathered up detector and knife, donned my earphones, and walked out into the river.
Talk about pitch black! The second my head went under all light disappeared, and I was utterly alone in the cold, free-flowing muddy water. The only sound was that awful hiss of air that reminded me of my mere mortality and its total dependency on whatever oxygen remained in the tank strapped to my back. I thought at once that I should have had another beer for the road. Not to be. And regardless of how chicken I felt, I couldn’t go back, not with those gorgeous young things back there expecting me to be …Superdiver!
Taking another long drag of precious air, I struggled against the current, went horizontal, and began blindingly scanning the river bottom in long semicircular sweeps. There were plenty of signals, which gave me hope, but each was too small to be significant. It didn’t take long, though, until I got that large, symmetrical signal that meant… cannon ball!
After digging it from the rocky bottom, I fondled the big ball and estimated it to be about six or seven inches in diameter. Now, heart thumping, I only needed to get out of here. I had no sense of direction, only the feel of the river bottom under my flippers. I chose what appeared to be an uphill direction, and, fortunately, walked right up the bank, right out in front of an admiring pair of suntanned beauties. “Nothing to this,” I told them authoritatively with my chest stuck out. “32-pounder. Probably Confederate.”
“Guess I’ll go back and get some more.”
The guys weren’t so impressed. In fact, the divers seemed a bit peeved. My Engineer buddy wasn’t smiling, either, as he completed preparations for his own diving experience. “Let me try the detector,” he whined.
“Naw,” I answered, “better let an expert handle the detector,” and I turned and strode manly-like back into the river.
This time I hunted with confidence, sweeping the detector in long, graceful arcs, the way us experts do it. I had forgotten all about my buddy, who had walked into the river behind me. I was crawling along the bottom while thinking about the big logger-head turtles that infested these waters, and how they liked to lie on the bottom of the river with their big mouths wide open, hoping a little fish would mistake their wiggling tongue for a meal and dart inside so the big mouth could slam closed and… bite off my arm!
It was at about the thought of the loss of my metal-detecting arm that my buddy managed to grab my foot and pull it. I’m not sure how I avoided drowning, screaming the way I was, but when I didn’t, and when I had recovered from the shock, I found that yes, you can curse out loud underwater, and yes, the other person, the cursee, can hear your curses. Curses did not deter this cursee, however, and he held onto my foot as I once again began the search. In a short while I detected another large ball. After digging it from the river bottom I thought I might as well just stay out here and dig the rest of what-must-be-many cannon balls, so I turned to my buddy, pulled his hand over so he could feel the ball, and shouted for him to take it out. He must have understood, for he brought his other hand forward to receive it. At that point I dropped the ball into his cupped hands.
Horrors! Somehow, as the cannon ball dropped, it struck the air hose connected to my mouthpiece, jerking it from my lips. My instructors hadn’t included in their lecture instructions regarding the proper procedure for locating a missing mouthpiece, so I realized at once that I was about to drown!
I would never have believed it possible unless I had done it myself, but it’s true: One can run underwater. Run I did, stirring the river to a boil as I raced up the bank towards air. When my head broke the surface I had already decided that I’d had enough scuba diving for this day. The cuties weren’t impressed by the way I exited the river screaming, either, despite my quickly bragging of my heroics. To make matters worse, my buddy brought out the cannon ball and was recipient of the oohs! and ahhs! that should have been mine. The professional divers were all toothy smiles.
We’d all had enough for the day, so we packed our gear and our two cannon balls and headed downstream, planning our next trip as we rode the river back to Vicksburg. It had really been a great day.
In subsequent trips (in a flat-bottom aluminum boat and without the beer and babes), my buddies and I hauled out more cannon balls and other relics. All things considered, the dives into this and other local rivers are some of my most treasured memories.
Several months later I earned my open-water diver’s license, but afterwards I was rather uncomfortable diving in the rivers. Guess it’s those logger-head turtles.
The obvious lessons I learned from this true tale are 1) Research can pay off big, 2) The rivers are kind of a “last frontier” for relic hunters, 3) Better know what you’re up against before donning that scuba gear, and 4) Avoid beer and cuties when diving.

XI. Diving adventures 2

Following my abortive dive into the depths of the Yazoo River, confident that there was much more treasure at the bottoms of the oceans and rivers than lying about on land, I decided that I would become a mighty scuba diver, accomplished in whatever means necessary to survey the vast expanses of oceans and rivers. To that end I enrolled in a diver’s school in Jackson, Mississippi, and for several weeks studied and practiced – in a swimming pool – all the skills required of a Certified Diver. The technical aspects of the scuba gear and the effects of depths on man I absorbed quite readily. The actual practice, however, disturbed me, for I found that without the benefit of a dozen beers, I had an unnatural fear of drowning. Strapping on thirty pounds of tanks plus weight belts and lying on the bottom of the pool breathing through a mouthpiece was quite scary enough, but when it came time to practice survival on the occasion of an empty oxygen tank – that’s when you share one tank between two divers without the benefit of masks – that’s when I found that with little provocation, I could become quite panicky. This fact I hid from my instructors and my classmates, for there were cuties in the diving class who wouldn’t look with great admiration upon a chicken diver who was afraid of drowning. Let this be of note to all men who read this: Women are your downfall.
I managed to survive the training; I was issued my temporary license. Now came the real thing: an open water dive that would result in my being issued my “Certified Diver” credentials. This was scheduled several weeks later to take place in the Gulf of Mexico, near Destin, Florida.
The dreaded day neared. I drove to Destin the day before the dive was scheduled and stayed at the same motel where my classmates had reservations. The other guys and I had a great evening with the females who were scheduled for the dive, each of us bragging about our prowess beneath the waves – and the covers, of course. The girls were a lively bunch, good sports, who, I thought, grew more wide-eyed and appreciative of us rugged guys with each of our ever-more-incredible boasts. By the end of the night I was the one person on whom Jacque Cousteau relied when faced with his most difficult missions.
Wide-eyed at 5:00AM, I lay in bed and wished my friend Jacque could be here to take my place. There was no way around it now, though. I showered and shaved and donned my shorts and T-shirt, grabbed my bag of diving equipment, and trudged to the dock, where my buddies, male and female, were already boarding the dive boat, a 60-footer, more or less, with a long flat deck surrounded by three-foot gunwales.
The weather had the effect of further dampening my spirits. Though the sun shone brightly, a wind was blowing at what seemed gale force. Thirty minutes after we left the dock I felt the first wave of seasickness. As I emptied last night’s beer and chips over the gunwales, the wind whipped the waves into twelve to fourteen foot mini-tsunamis. I noticed then that I wasn’t the only one barfing over the rail; soon not only the divers, but the entire crew (the experienced seamen-divers!) were taking their turn at feeding the fish. It would have been hilarious if I hadn’t felt so bad.
The churning of my stomach was somewhat alleviated when I lay on my back, so lie on my back I did, until the orders came for all divers to don their wet suits. I couldn’t stand to don my wet suit without barfing anew, so I squeezed into the contraption while wiggling around on my back. That worked. You can’t strap on an oxygen tank while lying on your butt, however, so I waited until the very last minute, when my buddies were already being ordered over the side by the instructors, to leap up and struggle into the remainder of the scuba gear. Fighting back the nausea, I stared unbelievingly over the gunwales at the roiling water beneath us. The waves were tossing the boat up twenty feet, the boat was then slamming down onto the surface some twenty feet below.
Jump into that? I thought. Are these people nuts? We better call this damn thing off.
“Don’t grab hold of the anchor line!” my instructor shouted to me, “It’ll tear your arm off!”
“Wait” I shouted, “Don’t you think we ought to…”
“Jump! Wait ‘til we come down close, then jump!”
“I can’t…”
“Jump, asshole!”
None of the cuties were around. They’d all already dived in to their deaths, I guessed. No one would know if I just forgot about this whole damn certification business…
“Jump, dammit!”
The instructor was pretty damn mad, I saw, and was coming toward me with an evil look to his eye. I took a deep breath and…
I suppose I was too intent upon fleeing to remember the part about jumping when the boat was near the surface, for I leapt as the sea was doing its thing – propelling the boat into the air – with the result that I shot upward like I had on booster rockets, then met the sea below with monumental impact. Forced far beneath the surface, facemask and mouthpiece dislodged by the collision, I knew for certain my time was near. Paddling furiously, desperately (thank God for fins), I managed to break the surface before running out of air. The anchor line was nearby; instinctively I grabbed it and hung on for dear life as it tried its best to whip me loose. No way. Me and that anchor line were inseparable. It took another minute for me to locate and reposition my mask and mouthpiece while being thoroughly thrashed by the anchor line.
Then a strange thing happened (I still haven’t figured this one out). Though I was squeezing that whipping anchor line with all the power my fists could bring to bear, I slowly slid down, down, down into the depths of the Gulf. I wasn’t anxious to go south, but I wasn’t in control. Luckily, I now had vision and air. And the closer I got to the seabed the less the anchor line beat me, and the more the seasickness was abated. When my fins touched bottom, all was eerily quiet and still.
This ain’t too bad! I thought as I searched the water about me for sight of my comrades. There they were. I saw them. Fifty yards away. Swimming leisurely away, leaving me behind, lost at sea.
Then I became aware that there was something else swimming leisurely along nearby…
My God! I screamed to no one but me. Fish! Big fish! Barracuda!
There were four of them. I had read about and seen pictures of these killers, talked with the other divers about their big teeth, rows of teeth that could cut a diver to pieces in about thirty seconds. Now four of them swam toward me as I watched, too frightened to move, flat-footed on the sandy sea bottom clutching my anchor line.
I had heard they had big eyes, but this…! Three feet in diameter! Sure, terror tends to amplify impressions. Perhaps they were only twelve inches in diameter. Maybe it was the water magnifying things. Regardless, they had monstrous eyes, and they all were staring at me.
Perhaps I wasn’t juicy enough. Perhaps my manly chest and bulging muscles frightened them. Or perhaps they took pity on a poor, terrified puny little guy? Or perhaps barracuda don’t like to eat divers after all. Whatever the reason, the big fish just eyed me as they swam past without even slowing for a closer look.
Once they were out of sight and I dared to breath again, I remembered I was alone at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico with no way to get home unless I crawled back up that slippery anchor line – and that was suicide – or located my diving group. Frantically I took off in the direction I’d last seen them. They hadn’t gotten far, and were just beginning an inspection of an old shipwreck when I caught up with them. I joined them, and for the first time began to enjoy the adventure. The ship lying on the bottom of the Gulf had deteriorated to skeleton status and was of passing interest. There were rocks and sand and a few fish, but little else to demand attention. Our group swam leisurely along, each investigating whatever offered curiosity, each apparently content to enjoy the sights amid the absence of sound.
A dark spot on the ocean floor soon attracted my attention. I floated gently down to investigate. The object appeared to be iron or steel, dark and rusty, with rivet heads exposed along the twelve by twelve inches that could be seen. A treasure chest! I realized immediately. Fanning the sand away, I uncovered the top of the chest. Sure enough. A perfectly square top about fifteen inches by fifteen inches. Wow! I thought. Treasure – gold and silver coins – for sure! Who woulda thought?
I realized that I would never find this spot again, that I had to dig the chest from its grave right now, and somehow lug it back to the ship. With both hands I began scooping sand away from the edges of the chest, so much so that I was nearly blinded. After removing perhaps six inches from all around it, I used both hands to grab and pull and… what was this? The chest had no sides! It was just a damn rusty old piece of iron plate!
I decided I wouldn’t mention my terrific find to the others as I looked around to be sure no one had noticed. Great Scott! I bubbled as I scanned the vicinity. My group was no where in sight. I was all alone!
Frantic once again to find them I made like Superfish and paddled and flipped in the direction I had last seen them. In a minute I realized that was not the right direction, so I tried another, and another, and another. I don’t know how long I streaked around the Gulf of Mexico searching for my group, but it seemed like hours. God! I thought when I finally realized I would never see them again. Lost at sea! I could see the headlines now: “Malcolm Allred, beloved Engineer and Treasure Hunter, lost at sea. Entire city mourns loss.”
The only thing that made sense now was to surface and try to find the mother ship. I had used up a lot of stamina and air with all the undersea acrobatics, and, as I found out later, we had all been swimming against an undersea current. So I was beat. And when my head broke the surface and I saw our boat – a mere speck on the horizon that disappeared every few seconds behind the hundred-foot waves – I momentarily hoped the barracuda would return and quickly end my pain.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to swim fourteen miles in mountain-size waves when you’re dead tired and weighed down with scuba gear, but I know from the experience it’s an experience I don’t want to repeat. When I finally reached the boat I felt as though every muscle in my body had died. And what should greet me? I should have known. Just another horror.
The wind and waves had calmed not one iota. If anything, the waves were larger, the wind howling across them. I hadn’t noticed until now that there was a steel grating about eight feet long by four feet wide bolted to the rear of the boat that during normal dives served as an embarking platform for the returning divers. Normally the platform would have been at water level. Today, it was fifteen feet above my head one second, smashing downward with tremendous impact onto the surface of the ocean the next. If my timing were off even a bit when I tried to board, I could very well be dinner for those four barracuda. Lining the gunwales, discussing my plight, my now-returned-safely-and-waiting-on-me classmates surveyed the spectacle below them, making no effort to hide their sadistic grins. Were they making book on my chances of survival? I wondered. I also wondered if the cuties would recognize that no Jacque Cousteau floundered in the Gulf before them.
Fatigued as I was, I managed a miracle by grabbing the platform edge and pulling myself on board. Dragging myself to my feet I climbed the short ladder up to and over the gunwale and fell head first to the deck below, where I wiggled from my tank in a prone position, too weak to shed the wet suit. Far too worn out to get to my feet, I lay on my back where I fell. I didn’t even mind that my buddies and the cuties sauntered past occasionally, pointing and guffawing. I just lay there, immobilized, demoralized, shame-ridden, and let the sun beat down upon my naked face for nearly the entire two-hour stretch that remained of the ordeal. I wound up with a burn that kept my mug hidden at home for several days.
Needless to say, I bragged no more of my Cousteau-like qualities. Hell, I didn’t ever want to be seen by those people again! When I got back to my car I swung north and drove hard. The dive instructors kindly sent along my certification papers a couple of weeks later, but you know what? I didn’t give a darn if I ever used them to fill another scuba tank!